Every year on the fourth Thursday of November, I count my blessings and thank God for all that I have. Like most people, I am thankful for health and wellness, for the fulfillment of the basic necessities of life, and for the relationships that I hold dear.

But for me, Thanksgiving is so much more meaningful. It’s not just a holiday in November where we gorge ourselves with food until bursting at the seams. It’s actually the start of what I consider my favorite time of the year.

We’ve just flipped over the calendar page to December and it’s officially Christmastime now, but the holiday season stretches a little longer for me than just the first 25 days of December. To me, the spirit of the season begins on Thanksgiving Day and lasts through the celebration of the new year.

This is my favorite time of the year in almost all respects. I could do without the sometimes bitterly cold temperatures, but I can’t get enough snowfall during this period. Count me among those who share Bing Crosby’s dream of a white Christmas. With all due respect to my neighbors in the South, snow is synonymous with Christmastime and I just couldn’t imagine myself growing up without it.

So why do I love Christmastime so much? What makes it the most wonderful time of the year? Let’s start from the beginning and work our way forward.

As a child, let’s be honest, Christmastime represented the best chance at scoring new toys. I don’t think I was any more greedy than the average middle class child, but what child doesn’t light up at getting presents on Christmas Day?

I can remember tossing aside my schoolbooks in late fall and studying store catalogs instead, zealously circling items that caught my attention and preparing my endless list of ideas for Santa Claus. These weren’t just items I wanted. No, they were things I “had to have.” While I never did get my Red Ryder BB Gun, I did receive a lot of neat stuff over the years.

Christmastime is always filled with enchanting aromas. My favorite Christmas scent, without question, is that of a Christmas tree. We were a “real” Christmas tree family, but we weren’t the type to drive out to the middle of nowhere to cut one down. No, we would joyously hop into the back of the powder blue Ford Taurus and head to the Menards parking lot to pick out our tree.

Bringing home the dying evergreen, trimming it down to size, stuffing it through the doorway and struggling to fit it into a tree stand wasn’t as exciting to a child as it may now sound to you. Not to mention, as I was eagerly waiting to put up my popsicle stick, construction paper, school-made ornaments, my mom and dad were busy trying to get the tree to sit upright — “A little to the left. No, no, my left, not yours.” After all was said and done, I would hang up about six ornaments before getting bored and going to play Nintendo. But the tree sure looked and smelled good when I came back down for dinner!

Cookies are one of my other favorite parts of the holiday season! Delightfully fattening now, they represented a tasty sugar rush that spoiled my dinner as a child. To this day, my mom still works tirelessly in the kitchen to prepare dozens of batches of cookies for friends and relatives.

One of my favorite family traditions growing up was the Advent calendar. Most calendars open up a door for each day of December leading up to Christmas, revealing a small portion of the story of the Nativity of Jesus. Plus, there’d be a chocolate in there! Our family took it a step further and my three siblings and I would receive a small gift — think Matchbox cars and baseball cards — based on whoever’s name was drawn for that day.

In addition to the excitement of waking up each day to see if I was the lucky winner of the next grand prize — priceless treasures to a child, delightful junk to adults — we’d also peek through the blinds of our bedroom windows to see how much, if any, snow we got overnight. If it was heavy enough to cover the roads, we’d tune in to the local radio station to see if our schools were closed for the day. Oh, how joyous those days were, being able to sleep in a few extra hours or play video games or — if truly brave — throw on the ol’ snow pants and go build forts for a massive snowball fight.

As Christmas drew closer, we looked forward to the conclusion of school — at least for a two-week winter break. Things settled down inside the classroom. Throughout grade school, we’d have class parties, play games and watch movies in the final few days before the holiday. Once school let out, we had hit the quarter pole and the home stretch to my favorite holiday!

Christmas Eve was always exciting as a kid. My dad’s side of the family is of Polish descent, and the night before Christmas has rich heritage. We’d visit my dad’s parents’ house for the first wave of holiday cheer, devouring what is my favorite meal of the year followed by the singing of Christmas carols with my uncle tickling the ivories. After dinner the adults would clean up and get some of the dishes done while us kids would sneak into the living room, congregate around the tree and crane our necks in awkward positions to try to sneak a peak at the name tags on the gifts. The suspense would kill us until we actually got to open them, always excited by what we got and eager to immediately break out and play with what we could.

Eventually we would venture back home and pass out in the backseat of the car with sugar plums dancing in our heads. When we walked through the front door, we’d always peak into the living room to see if Santa Claus had come while we were away, but, of course, he never had. He seemed to always know to wait for us to get home and in our beds.

As we crawled into bed that night, the anticipation was unbearable. I had the understanding that the faster I went to sleep, the faster morning would come and I’d get to open the presents from Santa. But the anticipation still kept me awake and left my head swirling with the possibilities. To this day, anticipation in almost any situation is one of the greatest thrills I enjoy, and I point toward my excitement as a child on Christmas Eve as the origin of that feeling.

When morning finally hit and the first rays of sunlight slipped between my eyelids, I couldn’t wait to run downstairs to see what Santa had brought. But, as a rule, we’d have to wait for all four kids to be awake and our parents to be ready for us to come down. When we finally made our way downstairs, our dad would be filming us with his video camera and Christmas music — usually John Denver and the Muppets — would be playing in the background. Our presents were set up in four neat piles and our stockings were overflowing on the wall. Needless to say, the enjoyment that ensued was a kid’s dream come true.

The youthful vigor of a kid on Christmas lasted throughout my high school years, at which point I went away to college as an adult. While many people lose that Christmas spirit when they become adults, I experienced more of a reformation and rejuvenation of the mind and the heart.

The college that I attended was broken down into trimesters. We were sentenced to three, 10-week terms that lasted from Labor Day through the first week in June. The fall trimester ended the week of Thanksgiving and the winter trimester did not begin until the first Monday after New Years. That meant that my winter break lasted for six weeks, from Thanksgiving through New Years — a major reason why Christmastime grew to be my favorite time of the year.

While many college students pick up seasonal jobs on such a break, I chose to relax and not think about the pressures of higher education. That, and I was lazy. But I earned the break and I wanted to enjoy it to the fullest.

But how would I spend those six weeks of freedom? I was no longer a kid, so digging through store catalogs for gift ideas was a bit greedy and senseless. Still, I had the heart of a child still beating inside of me and wanted to really get into the spirit of the season.

I started my break by going shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving — we now know it as “Black Friday”, the most materialistic and greed-induced day of the year. Back then, though, it was just a day off for me to go shopping with my cousin. After a long day amongst the slow walkers and fast drivers, I went home and plopped down on the couch and wanted to watch a Christmas movie I had never seen before, so I watched Jingle All the Way, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. To this day, it remains a firm part of my Christmas traditions and is my favorite Christmas movie.

The rest of the winter break I spent watching more Christmas movies, decorating, trying my hand at baking cookies, and yes, even playing in the snow. You’re never too old for that.

After my four years at college, I was no longer able to enjoy a six-week winter break. But, once I got a job and entered the real world, I still made it a habit of taking a week off leading up to Christmas to try to “rekindle” that spirit.

Fast forward to today, unmarried and without children, but engaged to a beautiful woman named Rachel, I couldn’t be more excited about the start of yet another Christmas season. Things are a little bit different now than when I was a child, or a single adult, but the heart of a child still beats within me and my Christmas spirit is still filled to the brim. I still have a dozen and a half Christmas movies lined up and ready for viewing. I still have Christmas gifts to buy and cookies to be eaten. Parties are on the schedule and the holiday gatherings await. And the full week of Christmas will be spent away from my work office where I can rest and relax and rekindle that Christmas magic.

It’s a season of joy, of good cheer, of togetherness and staying forever young. Life is a blessing and a gift given to us by our savior and the entire season surrounding the celebration of his birth couldn’t possibly make me feel more alive.

Someday, God willing, I’ll have kids to whom I’ll pass down Christmas stories and traditions. Until then, I’m still living in the moment and cherishing the sights and sounds — and, yes, even the smells — of another holiday season, the most wonderful time of the year.